Protecting Marine Species

mako sharkby Jeff Hutchings

What do Atlantic cod and BC’s canary rockfish have in common with the burrowing owl and Vancouver Island marmot? They have all declined by more than 80 or 90%. And they are all considered to be at increased risk of extinction by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). COSEWIC is the national science body, arms-length from government, responsible for advising the federal Minister of the Environment on species at risk.

Despite similar declines, these species part company when it…

comes to inclusion on Canada’s national legal list of species at risk. Most endangered and threatened terrestrial plants and animals are on the list; most marine fish are not. Species that are listed are protected under the Species at Risk Act, or SARA. It is unlawful to harm or kill listed species or to destroy habitat critical to their persistence. Recovery strategies are required by law. And government must mitigate factors that threaten their persistence, such as habitat destruction, over-exploitation, non-native species, and increasingly climate change.

Since 2004, COSEWIC has advised the federal government that 27 endangered or threatened marine fish warrant inclusion on the national list. Of the mere ten listing decisions rendered to date, only two were in favour (basking shark in the Pacific, white shark in the Atlantic). The remaining 17 are in listing-decision limbo; the decision period for the shortfin mako shark is seven years and counting.

In other words, 80% of the time the federal government has decided not to list an endangered or threatened marine fish. Why? The simple reason is that the listing of species of commercial value, even if that value is pathetically marginal, would affect industry. Catches would have to be cut. Fisheries would have to be closed.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is government’s standard bearer for Canada’s fishing and aquaculture industries. It seems to perceive the fishery closures that would surely be required by SARA to be an infringement of DFO’s responsibilities under the Fisheries Act, a 19th century relict that binds the fisheries minister to next to nothing and whose best-by date is widely considered to have long since passed.

DFO argues that listing is not required under SARA because the Fisheries Act provides all the tools necessary for recovery. In theory, that’s true. In practice, it’s largely a sham. Marine fishes declined because of the over-fishing that was allowed under the Fisheries Act. The legislation that purportedly trumps SARA is the same legislation that permitted historically unprecedented species depletions.

Another issue for DFO is that the listing of marine fish would require the establishment of recovery targets and rebuilding timelines. This sounds reasonable. Targets are indicative of a strategy. They suggest a plan. Yet DFO has not set recovery targets for most marine fish. This includes cod, whose decline is the greatest numerical loss of a vertebrate in Canadian history. More than twenty years after collapse, cod shows no signs of recovery. Indeed, it is still fished.

Canada exudes pride in being caretaker to 20% of the globe’s fresh water, one-third of its boreal forests, and the world’s longest coastline. However, this aquatic and terrestrial wealth comes with a responsibility to be internationally-respected stewards of this vast environment. We are apparently not up to the task. The recent dismantling of federal environmental legislation is one example of our faltering efforts. Failure to list, yet continue to harvest, endangered species is another. The porbeagle shark, acknowledged by everyone but Canada to be endangered, was not listed because it might have affected the livelihoods of two fishermen. Canada was unwilling to demonstrate responsible stewardship for a species that had declined 90% and will take decades to recover, if ever. Where is the pride in that?


Jeff Hutchings is Killam Professor of Biology at Dalhousie University, President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, and former Chair of COSEWIC.

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